‘No’ to Fast Foods

Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has suggested that warning may be displayed on fast foods just as is done for cigarettes. Whether it will work in India is altogether a different matter. Statutory warning on cigarette packets is at worst a joke! But South American countries like Chile and Ecuador have already made it mandatory for sellers to display warning of these foods being harmful for health on foods that are high in sugar, salt and fats. Such foods do not provide the minerals and other micronutrients necessary for good health. This is especially harmful for children.

Big companies produce unhealthy foods like Pizza, candies, and soda that are heavy in fats and sugar and low in other essential nutrients. They launch massive marketing campaigns and persuade the public, young school going children in particular, to consume these harmful foods.

Big companies target school going children to expand their market of these harmful food items. They place advertisements of these foods in middle of children's programmes. Cartoon characters are printed on the boxes of these items. Free samples are distributed in schools. Promotional campaigns such as sponsoring school events are undertaken. A picture of fun is painted in the minds of the young; and the harmful effects of these foods are hidden. Children are unsuspectingly led to consume harmful foods. Large numbers of children are fat and malnutritioned.

The Government of India is aware of these negative impacts. The taxes on soft drinks were increased in the last budget to curb the spread of such foods. But the companies simply passed the extra burden on consumers. The hard reality is that the Government also wants to attract FDI. Coca Cola has promised to invest five billion US dollars. This investment will create demand for bottles, transport, and labour. Thus the Government is reluctant to regulate these companies more thoroughly lest they run away and the possible economic growth does not take place. How Coca Cola destroyed environment in Kerala and aggravated arsenic contamination of ground water in Bengal is now an open secret. But the authorities count dollars, not public health.

The consumption of fast foods leads to bad health and deaths and that leads to a huge loss to the economy. The WHO has assessed that India will suffer a loss of national income from diabetes and cardiovascular disease at 336.6 billion US dollars corrected for purchasing power. This means that gains to the economy from the entry of big companies is small in comparison to the loss from the deterioration of health of Indian people. Yet the Government is pushing for such investments because the benefits from establishment of these factories are directly visible while the losses from deterioration of health are "invisible."

Many developing countries have already made rules to prevent advertising aimed at school children. Costa Rica has banned chips, cookies, candy and carbonated sodas from elementary and high schools. Mexico has barred schools from serving or selling sugary sodas, juices or processed snacks; and directed that all tacos, burritos and salads are to be low in fat. Peru requires sale of only healthy food in school cafeterias. The Philippines has prohibited sale of carbonated drinks, sugar based synthetic or artificial flavoured juices, junk foods and any food product that may be detrimental to the child’s health in schools. Only nutrient rich food like root crops, noodles, rice and corn products in native preparation, fruits and vegetables in season and fortified food products labeled rich in protein, energy, vitamins and minerals, milk, shakes and juices prepared from fruits and vegetables are allowed to be sold.

The Foods Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) sets the standards for foods that are sold. The ban on Maggi Noodles came because the amount of lead was found to be in excess of these standards. But the role of FSSAI is restricted only to ensuring safety of the food items. It is ensuring that the paper used in the manufacture of cigarettes does not contain any poisonous material. FSSAI does not have the mandate to assess the health impacts of fast foods, let alone regulate the marketing campaigns to promote these items. It is necessary that the Government enact a law to regulate the manufacture, sale and marketing of fast foods. Need of the hour is to go beyond the marketing campaigns made in the schools and regulate the entire economic system of these harmful goods.

Vol. 48, No. 41, Apr 17 - 23, 2016